In 1603 Mary Brookes, a young London woman, was picked up by constables at the house of Agnes Allowin, a laundress and starcher who was also running a bawdy house in three rooms in Northumberland Alley, near Aldgate. Mary Brookes was taken to Bridewell, London’s house of correction on suspicion of sexual misconduct, where she confessed on another occasion that a captain had fetched her from her mother’s house and brought her to a house in the Strand, where he ‘had the use of her body’. At Bridewell, she was both questioned, and examined by the matron, who decided by means of a search that she was ‘light’, not a virgin.
Bridewell, once a royal palace, sat by the Fleet River, on what is now the north of Blackfriars Bridge: in 1603 its jurisdiction over the city’s vagrants, thieves and sexual offenders was at its peak, with public whippings twice a week. Mary Brookes’s journeys from home to sexual encounters and eventually to Bridewell take us into one of London’s many sexual underworlds: washing and starching, always women’s work, was intimate and personal enough to be readily linked with sexual transactions, and Brookes’s mother seems to have been complicit in these arrangements. It was a typical encounter of urban prostitution, which was largely run informally by women. In 1603 the Strand was one of Westminster’s most desirable locations, a wide street lined with great houses, as well as inns and businesses, and a ‘noisome channel’ running by the housefronts. We have only sketchy information about the daily lives of the less important inhabitants and passers-by of the grand thoroughfare Strand, and this is one strand of what we know. Captain North was not tracked down. Agnes Allowin was whipped for bawdry, ordered to provide sureties who would answer for her good behaviour and told to leave the ward within 20 days. Mary Brookes was whipped as a ‘young harlot’ and ordered to provide sureties before she could leave Bridewell. She was back in court a week later on similar charges.
From the Minute Book of the Governors of Bridewell:
Saturday 11 June 1603 Mary Brookes taken in Northumberland Alley at one Anne Wilkes alias Allowine’s house a starcher or laundress. Being examined whether she be a maid saith yea, but upon search is found light. Whereupon being further examined confesseth that Captain North hath had the use of her body at an house in the Strand and himself fetched her from her mothers house thither, and she came to the said Wilkes her house with 2 bands of her mother’s to wash and starch an hour before the men came and she delivered the bands to the woman in the kitchen. Kept till further order.
Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives, BCB 4, fo. 383.